Virtual Workshops Prepare Students for Poetry Out Loud Competition

Participants could win as much as $20,000 at the national contest.

Poetry Out Loud competitors
Courtesy: Arkansas Arts Council

Performers often rely on the energy of the crowd to fuel them, so switching to mostly virtual interactions amid the pandemic has been challenging for spoken word artist Drekkia Morning. 

“I’m used to doing things in person and being able to engage, so this whole digital thing is different and it feels so disconnecting,” she says. 

However, Morning is coming around to this new way of doing things. As the arts in education program manager for the Arkansas Arts Council, she’s been organizing a series of virtual workshops aimed at preparing high school students for the Arkansas Poetry Out Loud competition Mar. 13. The workshops have been well-received, improving Morning’s outlook on performing in a digital space.

“Being in the presence of somebody, I feel like it’s so much more powerful but with this past workshop that we had, people were able to gain so much from it and it made me feel better and more accepting of this new digital age that we’re going into,” she says.

Poetry Out Loud is a national poetry recitation competition for high school students. The initiative is a partnership between the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the state and jurisdictional arts agencies. Students perform works selected from an anthology of poetry. Participants can advance from school-level competitions to the state level and finally to the national stage where the winner receives $20,000.

When Morning joined the Arkansas Arts Council in Oct. 2019, she went to work recruiting more Arkansas schools to participate in the competition. One of those new recruits was the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

“Able-bodied people who don’t experience a lot, we forget about accessibility and making sure we provide those opportunities for everybody,” Morning says. “So that was one of the biggest highlights for me because when they did their competition, it was just so beautiful to see them participate.”

While Morning was able to watch their school-level competition, the winner was unable to compete at the 2020 state contest last March because it was canceled due to the pandemic. The competition returns this year in a virtual format, so participating in the virtual workshops will be good practice for participants. 

A different set of instructors lead each workshop and focus on a distinct topic, but the format is consistent. During each two-hour session, participants are able to write their own piece, share it and receive feedback from nationally-recognized poets. While the workshops will help prepare students for the March competition, anyone can participate in the free sessions.

“The thing with our workshops is they’re open to all ages because we’ve learned everybody likes poetry,” Morning says.”We’ve had students all the way from elementary to adults who participate.” 

The next workshop, which is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, will be led by Marquese McFerguson and Coffy Davis. Osyrus Bolly will lead the final workshop Mar. 6. Registration is available here

The Arkansas Poetry Out Loud competition begins at 9 a.m. Mar. 13 and will be presented via Zoom. Details can be found here

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.